TV Recap

Uncle Junior Whacks Nostalgic

In the season premiere of ''The Sopranos,'' Tony is a victim of his older relative's memory problems, and we learn about the mob's retirement plan

James Gandolfini, The Sopranos | GUT REACTION Tony's weight gain is suddenly the least of his worries
Image credit: James Gandolfini: Barry Wetcher
GUT REACTION Tony's weight gain is suddenly the least of his worries

''The Sopranos'': Tony's elder-care issues

Was it just, what, two years ago that Tony Soprano was last seen lumbering like a bear through his own snowed-over backyard, running from the feds who were closing in on Johnny Sack and toward a wife willing to give their marriage another try? Madonn', I've missed The Sopranos, with a hunger a hundred Oscar-nominated movies can't satisfy. So how did series creator/genius mook David Chase and season-premiere scripter Terence Winter welcome us back to our friends from Jersey?

''Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public,'' announces Agent Harris to a colleague as the two tour Mr. Soprano's neighborhood in a fedmobile. Then Agent Harris pukes. Genius. We're back all right, like we've never been away. And despite Tony's assertion that everything's going good (he's cheery now that he's off his antidepressants and, wink-wink, ''the bonefish are back in season''), it's clear that everybody, absolutely everybody, has something that gnaws the guts as stubbornly as the intestinal parasite Agent Harris picked up doing counterterrorism duty in Pakistan.

We're back, and economic prosperity can't outrun existential gloom. Or a few strategically placed plot bombshells. (I've got to assume that if you're reading on, it's because you've already experienced the blast yourself. Right? If not, jeez, stop reading right now, attend to your TiVo, and come back here later for cannoli and message-board posting.)

So: Carmela gets caught in a nightmare (usually it's Tony who gets the dreamscape scenes), standing among the substandard pine beams of her unfinished ''spec'' house with a ghostly Adriana and confiding that she worries all the time. Johnny Sack fumes in prison and, in Vincent Curatola's erotically charged performance, produces luxurious plumes of cigarette smoke. Janice resents the baby daughter suckling at her tattooed breast, as only the monstrously self-involved Janice can. (I didn't receive a birth announcement for Domenica Baccalieri, daughter of Janice and Bobby Bacala, did you? Anyhow, mazel tov to the broad-beamed couple.) And while she's at it, Janice resents her schmuck husband, too, with his model-train hobby and his luggish placidity. (Love the engineer's cap, though, don't you?)

The college career of hotheaded AJ looks headed for a train wreck of an academic sort — like we didn't see that coming. (The kid is already muscling for extra income with his not-so-on-the-level ''event planning'' activities.) Meanwhile, the brainier Meadow — now engaged to the Candide-like Finn — hems and haws about committing to a career in law or medicine.

And then there's the other family, their blood ties equally thick and their moods equally prone to blackness. Hesh and his son-in-law take a beating in a mob dispute. (As reported in the delicious language of the Soprano back room, ''the Hairdo'' attacked ''the Jew.'') Christuhfuh is in his perpetual state of miffed impatience. Ditto Paulie Walnuts, although it's a toss-up who's going to blow first, him or Vito Spatafore, who lost all that weight and is preening about his newly healthy lifestyle of diet and exercise. (Vito's extracurricular homosexual activity, witnessed by Fin at the end of last season, remains, for the moment, a secret; I'd love to read his review of Brokeback Mountain.) For the moment, Silvio seems solid, although who knows what's going on under that uniquely menacing pompadour. But then look at miserable Eugene Pontecorvo, poor bastard: Guy inherits two million bucks from a dead aunt, wants to ''retire'' to Florida with his family, and learns, the hard way, that there's no taking a buyout in his chosen corporate culture.

Was ever a suicide by hanging observed with such pitiless despair, as seconds tick by and a man's lousy life writhes to an end? (Cinematography fans are invited to admire the episode's brilliant medium shots, including that suicide and Tony's session with Dr. Melfi.) And — here we get to the big bang that ends the episode — was ever the deterioration of one old man's dignity so thoroughly and hideously portrayed as in the dementia that has turned Uncle Junior from a feared and vital consigliere to the possible murderer of his own nephew?

What's gnawing now in Tony's gut is literally a matter of life and death. Withered Uncle June's pathetic and destructive decline hints, I think, at a thrillingly dark season ahead. So I ask you, fellow connoisseurs of psychodynamics, mob violence, and Satriale's Pork Store: Who do you think is in for the most agita in the weeks to come? Who's next to squeal to the feds? Which loyal Soprano captain will cause trouble first? And now that Carmela has modernized her coif and taken the wheel of her spiffy Porsche Cayenne, do you think she'll ditch the old Jersey-princess fake nails?

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Originally posted Mar 13, 2006
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